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Share your #HornimanMemories

This month at the Horniman we're looking for our visitors to send us their favourite memories of the museum and gardens, to create a collection of #HornimanMemories.

Whether it's the first time you laid eyes on the Horniman Walrus, discovering the view of the London skyline from our Bandstand, or getting your hands on real museum objects in our Hands on Base, we want you to share all your favourite Horniman moments.

To add your memories to the project visit Twitter or Instagram and share using the #HornimanMemories hashtag. You could share a story, a feeling, or even a photo from a previous visit. We'll be using the hashtag to find all the memories shared and collect them together using Storify.

At the end of the month, we'll be selecting our three favourites and offering their owners a year's free Horniman Membership, including free access to the Aquarium and special exhibitions, as well as plenty of other perks, so you can continue to create even more memories here at the Horniman.

We'll also be sharing some of our own #HornimanMemories throughout the project, using pictures from the museum archives to reveal moments from the museum's past. Look out for these on our Twitter account.

Modelling the Natural History Gallery

Things are moving along in our Natural History Gallery, which has been closed this week as we make way for the new displays coming in 2015. As we saw in our last post, most of the objects from the entrance to the gallery have been taken off display, and this week, some of the older, empty showcases have been removed.

Visitors to the Gallery in the near future will find they have a much clearer view of the Horniman Walrus than they are used to.

But much of the preparation that goes on to prepare for the new display happens behind the scenes, and our Exhibitions and Natural History teams have been hard at work making plans.

This begins with sketches, which our graphic designer turns into more detailed computer models using the high-quality photographs from our object database.

But 2D can only get you so far; sometimes the only way to see what will fit where is to create your own 3D model.

There are still many decisions to make about which specimens are best suited to telling the story of this new display, and where they can be displayed.

Fans of our Edward Hart bird cases will be pleased to know that many of them will be returning to display, with some new examples from the stores joining them.

The detailed measurements our Documentation team record for each object means they can be recreated exactly to scale in a 2D or 3D mock-up, so that we are able to tell exactly where they will or won't fit.

And can you guess which this plasticine model is representing?

The Natural History Gallery is re-opening this weekend, so you can see the recent changes for yourself. The next closure will happen in January, as we prepare the showcases for the specimens coming in.

Afghanistan and Empire in the Horniman Stores

Tom, Assistant Curator of Anthropology, reports on a research visit to the stores and a special behind the scenes event he has planned.

Earlier this summer three experts on Afghanistan visited our stores: Zia Shahreyar is an Afghan journalist who works for the BCC, Bijan Omrani is an author and a historian of Afghanistan and Constance Wyndham works with the National Museum of Afghanistan.

Together they are creating a special event for the Horniman called Afghanistan and Empire. The event will be held on the evening of the 9 of October: the plan is to offer audience members a chance to examine our fascinating and sometimes moving objects from Afghanistan, followed by a session where Bijan and Zia will use the objects to tell the story of conflict in Afghanistan from the early nineteenth century up to the present day.

At the stores I showed my visitors a selection of objects which I thought might interest them. Top of my list was a carefully decorated Afghan jezail, a sort of musket feared by the soldiers of the British Indian army for its accuracy at long range.

On the butt of the jezail was pasted a handwritten note explaining that it was a trophy of the storming of Peiwar Kotal fort, a skirmish between British troops and Afghan tribesmen that took place in 1878.

I was also keen for the visitors to see a very early example of tourist art from the Kalasha people, whose territory sat at the very edge of the British India. The Kalasha and their compatriots in Afghanistan followed a pre-Islamic faith which fascinated the British, inspiring Rudyard Kipling to write his famous, The Man Who Would be King.

Discussions with my visitors led to fresh ideas and we found new objects to be included in the event. For example to provide a suggestion of the richness of Afghanistan’s heritage we chose some of the Horniman’s beautiful Gandharan carvings. The Gandharan culture existed in a region that borders present day Pakistan and Afghanistan. For several centuries it produced beautiful Buddhist artefacts and architecture inspired by the classical Greek cannon.

It is always a great pleasure to examine artefacts with experts and it is inspiring to see how a single object can encapsulate so many different narratives and ideas. Afghanistan and Empire will provide an opportunity to share this experience with a wider audience.

Afghanistan and Empire is a special Behind the Scenes event at the Horniman on Thursday 9 October. Book your tickets (£5) online now.

The Case of the Missing Polar Bear

A large taxidermy polar bear stands proudly in our family-friendly Extremes exhibition at the moment.

Its arrival here caused quite a flurry, but it wasn't the first time a polar bear had been on display at the Horniman.

In the early 1890s, Frederick Horniman bought a polar bear from a man called James Henry Hubbard. The polar bear was first displayed in the Canadian Section of the 1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London, along with many other Canadian animals including our famous walrus.

The polar bear is first mentioned in local newspaper articles as 'a polar bear realistically attacking a seal'.

It was one of the big stars of the Museum for over 60 years and was very popular with museum visitors. Over the years, the polar bear and other animals were moved several times. It was stated that it took five men to move each one.

However, in the late 1940s, the polar bear was sold.

There were many reasons for this: the fur of the polar bear may have become dirty and the mount itself may no longer have been in good condition; staff in the museum began to research new themes for display based on the latest scientific ideas and developments and there would have been very little space to store large animals at that time. Also, by the 1940s tastes and attitudes towards taxidermy had changed significantly and it became increasingly unfashionable to display large animals in museums.

The polar bear was sold on 17 September 1948, to a Mr T Allen, a local ‘scrap’ merchant. The polar bear's fate is a mystery.

At one time, there were rumours that the polar bear had been bought and put on display in Selfridges, but this has never been confirmed.

In 2006, we set upon a search to find out if the polar bear still exists somewhere out in the wider world, but were not able to find anything concrete. We learned that it had been sold on by Mr Allen in the 1950s to a photographic studio in Southend-on-Sea, but unfortunately have not found any evidence of what happened to it after that.

Do you live in Southend-on-Sea or have visited in the past and remember having your photograph taken with a polar bear? We'd love to hear from you.

Horniman Inspiration: Kate Mosse and The Taxidermist's Daughter

On Thursday 11 September best-selling author Kate Mosse joins us at the Horniman to celebrate the launch of her latest novel, The Taxidermist's Daughter. Ahead of this special event, she talks about some of the inspiration she gained at February's Taxidermy Late.

There's a moment in writing any novel when, suddenly, the book clicks into place. All the thinking and planning, the inspiration, the plotting, none of it matters until the story sparks into life. Anything can make it happen – reading a good piece of research, visiting the location about which you're writing, looking at photographs. For me, it was visiting the Horniman...

Picture the scene, a cold and dark night in February 2014. The event? 'Taxidermy Late', an evening dedicated to taxidermy in all of its glory, centred around the fabulous collection at the Museum. I'd been a regular visitor in the 1990s, when I lived in London and our children were little, but hadn't been back for some time.

It was, simply, a magical evening. For three hours I wandered around, on my own, spellbound. I watched taxidermist Jazmine Miles-Long, I listened to Pat Morris talk about the history of taxidermy and Errol Fuller dazzle the packed downstairs lecture room, I joined the queue to have my photograph taken with a piece of taxidermy from the collection (a duck, as it happens) and stood tapping my foot to the music of the most exciting new band I'd heard for ages, Gabby Young & Other Animals. Their album became the music I listened to before sitting down at my desk each day to write the novel.

That winter's night, the Museum was alive with fun and light, with music and conversation, with women and men of all ages (and two life-sized, breathing, walking, talking kittens, as if they had stepped straight out of one of Walter Potter's tableaux).It was a true celebration of the history, of the craft, of the skill, of the beauty of taxidermy.

Most of all, though, what mattered was that the atmosphere and the passion was the final spark I needed for my novel. Because I was there on that damp February night, my lead character, Connie Gifford, became herself and the story took shape; I knew what I wanted to do and how the novel had to be written. A Gothic novel – set as the flood waters are rising in Sussex in 1912 – inspired by Walter Potter's Victorian Museum of Curious Taxidermy and brought to life by the Horniman Museum more than a hundred years later...

So, where better than the Horniman to launch The Taxidermist's Daughter. I hope to see you all there, in costume or not, for another evening of celebration.

Kate Mosse Talks Taxidermy is on at the Horniman at 6.30pm on Thursday 11 September. Buy your tickets online now (over 18s only).

A Horniman Wedding at the Horniman

Frederick Horniman’s great, great, great granddaughter, is keeping it in the family as she prepares for her wedding in our Conservatory this weekend. Hilary blogs for us looking back on her family history and why she decided to hold her wedding in her ancestor's museum.

I met my future husband Chris through a mutual friend, nearly five years ago in London. We currently live together in Wapping and are getting married in the Horniman’s Conservatory on Saturday 23 August 2014.

I grew up in London and visited the Horniman many times as a child, both with my grandparents, Hugh and Jessica Wyatt (nee Horniman), and on school trips, where I would proudly tell the rest of the class it was "my great grandpa's museum". Not strictly true, and probably very irritating!

I hadn't been to the Horniman for many years, when on a date with Chris we found ourselves at a loose end at Victoria train station. Chris suggested we get on the next train and go on an adventure - the next train happened to go to Forest Hill. So at about 8pm we found ourselves at the Horniman peering through the railings at "my great grandpa's museum". We've been back many times since, taking friends and their children to see the walrus and other curiosities, and attending events including the opening of the new Gardens. 

I will be wearing a dress of my grandmother’s on my wedding day and a necklace that belonged to my great grandmother Lucille Horniman, which was given to me by my grandmother on my 18th birthday.

It will be bittersweet to get married in one of her favourite places without her there, but I know she would have approved because she wasn't very subtle and I remember her hinting that the Museum would be a wonderful place for a wedding, before Chris had proposed! Michael Horniman, my great uncle, will be attending and I know he's pleased too.

For me the museum represents the sense of adventure and love of travel that my adored grandparents instilled in me. I feel incredibly proud to be getting married there.

Update:

Here's a picture of Hilary and Chris on their wedding day with Hilary's great uncle, Michael Horniman.

(Photo by Ben Joseph)

You can find our more about weddings and civil ceremonies at the Horniman on our Venue Hire pages.

Five Go Collecting: Traditional Healers in Palawan

Dalia is one of the five modern-day collectors selected by the Royal Anthropological Institute to take part in the Horniman Collecting Initiative. Here she reports on her fieldwork with the traditonal Palawan healers of the Philippines.

In many areas of the Philippines, traditional medical practitioners continue to be the main providers of health care. In the course of my fieldwork, the most common practitioner that I came across in the Palawan ethnic group were 'balyan', who rely on visualisations and invocation of spirits during healing practices.

Balyan use a variety of objects in their every-day practices and many were keen that some of these objects be donated and displayed at the Horniman Museum and Gardens in order to help maintain their cultural practices which they feel are under threat.

In order to select the most appropriate objects for the museum, I trained various healers to use digital cameras in order to visually document their practices and the objects that they use.

Following an initial training session, participants were given cameras for a period of 1-3 weeks and at the end I collected the cameras and printed the participant’s pictures.

The pictures were then used as the basis of qualitative interviews and allowed healers to decide what objects best reflect and convey their work.

In one case, Sario Langi, a balyan, used his camera to take pictures over 3 weeks whilst treating a variety of patients. One evening, a man came to him feeling very weak. Sario felt his pulse whilst calling upon the spirits to assist him in his diagnosis (turon). He also used a 'tari-tari'.

Tari-Tari is a diagnostic tool, a bamboo stick with honeybee wax at one end from which a piece of 'rocoroco' (Ocimum sanctum or Holy basil) is attached. Sario’s tari-tari was made by his father (also a balyan) and he inherited it from him after his death. The tari-tari is the same length as the span of Sario’s hand, but it will become longer or shorter to respectively confirm or refute the questions that Sario asks it.

In this way, Sario was able to diagnose that the man was suffering from 'pintas' (curse or evil words), probably spoken by a scorned lover. The tari-tari is crucial to Sario’s work, so he kindly made one to donate to the Horniman.

As a treatment, Sario gave him a 'pananga' which is an example of a repellent (panulak). This small cloth pouch, sewn by Sario’s wife Pina, contained 7 specific herbal plants and roots which, if tied by a string round the waist, reverse the curse and help defend the patient against further attacks. 

Sario inherited the knowledge of which 7 plants to use from his ancestors who appear to him through prayer. Sario collects these plants from the surrounding forest and stores them in a woven basket made by his father. Sario kindly donated this basket to the Horniman along with some pananga.

As well as illnesses caused by human agents, Sario can diagnose those caused by malevolent spirits. Using his camera, he documented his treatment of these illnesses.

He enters a sleeping state (natutulog) so that his own soul leaves his body and is replaced with a spirit with whom he can communicate. He adorns a headband that has sprigs of rocoroco (Ocimum sanctum or Holy basil) tucked into it, closes his eyes and start to use 'tawar' (incantations) to invite the spirit in. Sario feels himself becoming dizzy at this point is unable to ‘see’ what is happening in the human world.

He then picks specific sprigs of rocoroco which he waves in a circular motion over the patient along with 'silad' (pom poms) made from Mangrove Fan Palm (Licuala spinosa) accompanied by incantations (tawar) to call good spirits to his aid. Sario’s daughter took pictures of him using the silad which have now also been donated to the museum.

Five Go Collecting: Coin Garlands of the Marma Community

Farhana is one of five modern-day collectors selected by the Royal Anthropological Institute to research and acquire new objects for our collections. Here she reveals what she has learnt about an intriguing family heirloom in a Bangladesh community.

When I first came to Bangladesh's Chittagong Hill Tracts in January 2013, I interviewed two women from the area's Marma community in the town of Bandarban. We discussed coin garlands, which are family heirlooms which act as a link to their Burmese heritage. The women were originally from Ruma, which is close to the border with Myanmar (Burma).

Since then, I have looked into the custom of coin garland making. The men of the family would collect the coins and when they had a sufficient number, they would make a garland. The garland would be given to the eldest daughter as dowry to take with her into marriage.

Women used to wear the garlands all day, while working and sleeping, carrying their ‘personal value’ with them mainly because there was no way of keeping valuables safe in their remote bamboo homes. Today, the garlands are worn on special occasions or at Marma cultural events. 

The garlands are typically made up of Indian Rupee coins, sometimes threaded on string or on a small chain. Sometimes there are plastic beads between the coins or white metal beads made from melted-down coins. I am told the garland designs are Burmese in origin but that the makers had to rely on local Bengali smelting techniques and craftsmanship as well as local materials such as plastic beads and chains.

When I visited the Tribal Cultural Institute in Bandarban, I found garlands made from Indian Rupee coins with the heads of Queen Victoria, Edward VII and George V and East Pakistan Taka coins depicting George VI. Equally interesting is the fact that all the local tribes wear and value similar garlands.

Whilst the Marma call the garland 'Puaitha Loing Hrui', other tribes have different names. The Chak call it 'Tang Grik'; the Mro, 'Keng Leng' and the Lusai 'Cheng Thui'.

The coin garlands reflect the chequered history of the region. At different points in time, the people of the Chittagong hills have been incorporated into an ever-changing larger state, becoming minorities first in India, then in British India, then in Greater East Pakistan and finally in Bangladesh.

The British Empire played a prominent role here: the region was annexed as far back as 1860, becoming a British protectorate to keep the tribes safe against raids by a collection of guerrilla tribes.

Since the 1970s, this area has experienced huge upheaval, guerrilla warfare, and a Government-encouraged Bengali immigration. The latter was in response to the growing impoverishment of the Bengali population due to famine, disappearing delta land and a need to move to higher and fertile ground. The migration of Bengali people into the Hill Tracts was also seen as a way of integrating the Hill Peoples into Bangladeshi culture.

Therefore this area has many competing identities, with tribal people living alongside Bengalis and a fluid border. Objects such as these coin garlands reflect these multiple and dynamic influences.

Collecting a Coin Garland for the Horniman Museum

Returning to Bangladesh this year, I put out the word that I was interested in collecting a Marma coin garland for the museum because the object reflects not only the history of the area but carries cultural meaning for this community that has migrated to this area from Burma in the 1600s.

Many coin garlands vanished during the insurgency period in the CHT (1971-1997) or had already been sold to collectors. After months of gentle reminders, I received news that a family in Ruma wanted to sell their coin garland. Leaving our motorbikes behind, we walked the narrow trails along jum (slash and burn) cultivated slopes and mountain ridges to Ruma. However when we arrived, the family had changed their mind about the garland so we set off to another village to find another.

When I began chatting with the children in this village in a mixture of Bengali and Marma, the elders came out to see us and the owner of the coin garland invited me into his house. He was not willing to sell his garland but allowed me to see it, and I was able to ask him questions about the significance of it to him and his family. I explained how long I had been walking and was so far away from anything I recognised yet nonetheless here on his table, were coins with my British king on them! They laughed with me. Why, I asked, did they collect coins with another king’s head on? They were after all subject to their own king – the Bohmong Raja - but here they were wearing the coins of another king from very far away. He pointed out that these British kings were the ‘kings of everywhere’ and that the coins held great power and value as a result. My meeting with this owner drew a crowd from the village and everyone listened to the stories recounted.

After two more visits to Ruma, I was told of a lady who wanted to sell her coin garland. She grew up with her grandparents because her mother had died when she was 5 years old. Her grandparents gave her the garland when she was 15 years old. As her husband died in 1999 and she has no children, she had no one to pass the garland on to. The thread is original; there are 12 Pakistani coins, 11 taka coins and 27 connecting beads – silver coins melted down. Some of the coins are missing, possibly 3 in total.

When I met this lady for the first time, she uncovered different parts of the necklace slowly. They were hidden in different places in somebody else’s house. The necklace was not fully strung: there were loose coins and a broken string. We laid out the necklace so that we could take a photograph of her with her heirloom and she indicated how the necklace should look.

Back in the UK, the necklace was fixed before being handed over to the Horniman.

I wore it so that I could feel its weight and imagine what it must have felt like to wear such a heavy ornament all day. Worn by three generations of women, far away in the exotic remote hill tracts on the border between South Asia and South East Asia, this ornament is not only rich in history and meaning, but is also quietly exquisite.

#TranscribeTuesday at the Horniman

Today marks the start of #TranscribeTuesday in our archive, as we invite the public to become Horniman historians and deceipher the handwritten notes of curators and collectors past.

Normally hidden in our archive stores, 'Scrapbooks G & H' provide a fascinating record of the Horniman's early purchases, including some of the most iconic objects from the collection.

These records are over 100 years old, and show objects signed over to the Horniman's first curator, Richard Quick, and even to the museum's founder Frederick Horniman himself.

Many contain their own notes about their purchases, often including quick sketches, presumably to remind themselves of which object was which before the days of quick and easy photography.

Now, each page of these fascinating folios has been carefully digitised, but there is still some information missing from our collections database.

Inspired by St Fagans National History Museum in Wales, we're uploading these documents to the photo-sharing website Flickr, and inviting the public to transcribe the handwritten notes in the comments. We're hoping this information can then be added to our database to help researchers in the future.

To get involved and add your transcriptions (there might be more than one interpretation of some particularly spidery scrawls), head on over to our #TranscribeTuesday Flickr set and sign in to get started. If you don't already have a Flickr account, creating one is free and easy.

We've started the project by uploading receipts from the first page of Scrapbook G.

Transcription can be a tricky task: while the text of some receipts seems easy to read, the handwriting of some sellers seems deliberately designed to stump.

You don't need to transcribe a whole document at once (although we are looking for a transcription for every piece of text on each receipt). If a letter of word is completely unreadable, typing [?] or [000] in your description is a good way to show it.

If you fancy doing a little work to hone your transcription skills first, why not check out The National Archives interactive tutorial? You can try your hand at some really tricky passages and check how accurate your reading was at the end.

Alternatively, if you don't fancy your deceiphering skills, just taking a look at some of the receipts now on display online allows a fascinating glimpse into museum purchases of the past.

We'll be sharing further pages from the scrapbook on Twitter every Tuesday, as well as tweeting some transcription tips, so be sure to look out for the #TranscribeTuesday hashtag. Other organisations are also making use of the tag, so take a look and see where else you can get involved.

Changes in the Natural History Gallery

If you've visited our Natural History Gallery lately, you might have noticed that things are looking a little different.

Thanks to a generous grant from the DCMS/Wolfson Museums and Galleries Improvement Fund, we're able to revamp the front of the historic Gallery, creating new displays which highlight star specimens unearthed by our recent Bioblitz review, as well as improving physical access to the original 1901 gallery.

Over the next few months, some objects and cases from the front of the gallery will disappear as we make room to start work.

But not to worry - the Gallery is still open, and the rest of the displays are still intact around the corner, including our world-famous Walrus.

In the mean time, we've used the display cases to show pictures of how some of the Gallery used to look way back when, as well as provide a look at what you might see around the corner.

There will be some short temporary closures later in the year, but we'll keep you updated, so be sure to check the gallery's website page before visiting.

Latest news: the first temporary closure of the Natural History Gallery will be from 1 September to 5 September 2014.

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